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Recognizing Long-term Success in Students

Posted by on July 9, 2011. 0 comments

Tree Growing

Last week, we had auditions and selection of new students at our conservatory. This year, I took charge of auditioning all the kids that signed up for piano lessons. I did this because, in the last couple of years, I’ve gradually shifted my focus away from the advanced college students and more towards teaching children.

After listening to about thirty kids from the ages of six to eleven, I was struck with the huge variety in personalities, talents, and different strengths and weaknesses. Some kids were extremely outgoing — and oh so loud! — while others were so shy it was impossible to get them to say anything. Some kids had perfect pitch and others could barely sing back a note, or recognize if a note was higher or lower than another. And I knew that, once we started with our lessons, I’d have a bunch who would breeze through the beginners books and pieces. Others would advance slowly, struggling with each step.

However, in the long run, none of that is important.

I’ve had about four dozen children take lessons with me since I started teaching. My wife is much more focused on teaching kids than me; she’s taught the violin to about twice that number. The other day, we were talking about how children progress when learning a musical instrument. They’re like trees. A teacher can prune, water, and nurture them, but each of them grows in a completely different way. Eventually, each one branches out into new interests and activities which may overtake their interest in the violin, piano, or whatever musical instrument they’re learning. It can be difficult to predict what path they’ll take. Whether, a few years down the line, their musical instrument will still play an important role in their life, or whether they’ll abandon it for something else.

Talent, or musical aptitude, is not a good indicator of long term success. That is, if we define talent as having good pitch, rhythm, musical memory, and physical aptitude. Some “talented” kids breeze through the first months of lessons, only to crash against a brick wall when their “talent” isn’t enough to take them farther. A musical background can also be defining, but it isn’t a good indicator of future success either. My wife and I have both taught children with parents that are professional musicians, only to have the kids abandon their musical instruments after a while.

In our experience, there is one factor that never fails when predicting whether a piano student will be successful in the long-term. By the way, this applies to all levels:

Long-term success at any musical instrument is directly related to discipline in practicing.

From the first few lessons, an experienced teacher can tell which students will still be around by the time the year ends. Those that have a practice schedule, are organized while practicing, and are constant with their practice will always be the ones that succeed. Since you can’t really demand that kind of structure from a young child, you must demand it from the parent. That is why:

In young children, long-term success is directly related to parental involvement both in lessons and in practicing.

In our experience, these two points never fail to predict long-term success. Talking with other teachers we’ve found that most experienced teachers eventually arrive at this same conclusion. In fact, a quick Google search revealed this piano teacher who says the exact same thing in his blog and this research paper from the University of Helsinki which comes to the conclusion that musical aptitude is a very minor factor in selecting new students (with motivation, discipline, and parental involvement being the most important.)

Image in this post found here.